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Short of your social security number, there’s not much Google doesn’t know about you. If you use any of its services, be it Chrome, Gmail, or even the Android App Store, Google collects any data it can to improve its user experience.
It deploys various tracking methods to create a “user profile” of you based on your search history and online purchases, and then it shares that profile with advertisers to help serve more relevant ads to you. Google’s algorithms incorporate both hard data and calculated predictions to determine these profiles – a guessing game it wins 9 out of 10 times.
If you’re reluctant to fork over intimate details about your life like your marital status, income, or age, there are a few ways to sidestep this search giant. Google allows users to correct its profile assumptions, delete information from its database, and opt-out of profiling altogether. Yet, when even Google’s private incognito mode leaks data, it’s hard to trust that these options work.
Below, we outline how Google collects data, what exactly it knows about you, and how to protect yourself online, so you can confidently take back your privacy.
How Google Gathers Your Data
Like we touched on above, Google uses its services to gather information about you and create a complete picture of who you are. But how does it actually collect data? And how much data is collected?
It’s not a shotty business by any means – Google is not shy about wanting all your data. It simply stores and archives all the information you voluntarily give it while using Google services. Google keeps a historical record of it all from the very first day you land on one of its pages.
Here are the services Google uses to gather your data:
Google Search – Google logs every search you make within its search engine. This includes every query you enter into the search bar, what pages you click on, and when you searched something. With just this information, Google has a pretty good idea of what you’re interested in. But once paired with its other services, its profile of you becomes creepily accurate.
Google Chrome – As Google’s dedicated web browser, Chrome acts as a bottomless vault for all your online searches. Even if you don’t land on a website from Google’s main homepage, Chrome is able to track every page you visit within the browser. It allows users to store passwords, payment methods, and contact information, all of which help Google create that glowing profile of you.
Gmail – Google’s email service tracks just about every piece of correspondence from your Gmail account. That includes your contact list, the content of your emails, when you open emails, and even where you are at that time of opening them.
Google Translate – If you use this translation tool to look up definitions, know that Google uses every search in its quest to define you. Any information entered into this application is stored and ordered just like the rest.
Android OS – If you use any device or product running Android OS, Google has access to all the information stored on them. Aside from the obvious Samsung phones, Google has its OS in things like the stereos of newer Ford cars, LG smart refrigerators, and even Google glasses.
YouTube – There’s no shame in falling down the YouTube rabbit hole. We’ve all done it. Be aware, though, that any and all videos you’ve watched are added to your personal profile Google is compiling of you. That includes all those cat clips you scroll through.
Google Nest Products – Google offers a variety of home products like the Google Assistant and Nest doorbell that come with speakers to catch your every word. Even if you don’t activate one by saying “Hey Google,” it’s always listening and storing your conversations to better understand you.
Google Maps – This one speaks for itself, really. Whenever you map to or from somewhere, Google requires your current location to get you places. It also adds these timestamps to your record, which helps weave a chronological story about your life.
Waze – This one was new to me also, but it turns out Google also owns Waze – a popular maps alternative. The Waze app uses drivers’ data to help it predict traffic and give better directions. Just another handy tool for Google to always know where and when you’re on the move.
More Apps – We could go on and on, but you get the gist. Google has its hand in a lot of different industries, using each service and product to fine-tune its search predictions and user database. Other apps you might use include Google Drive, Google Calendar, and Google Photos.
What Google Knows About You
Has an ad ever popped up on your phone for a product you were talking about the day before but never actually searched online? It feels like a weird coincidence. But make no mistake – it’s by design. That level of relevancy is exactly why Google collects your data in the first place. After all, Google’s primary source of revenue comes from advertising.
Now that you have a better understanding of how Google gathers your information, let’s dive into exactly what types of details Google knows about you.
Location History – where you’ve been, where you currently are, and where you have plans to go
Search History – what you search online, how long you browse the web, and what websites you’ve visited
Online Activity – payment information for purchases, online passwords, and videos watched
Gmail Content – the contents of your emails, your contact list, and when you use the app
Voice Data – what your voice sounds like and recordings of every conversation you have
Personal Details – marital status, age, income, job
Analytics Data – how often you’re online, your movement patterns, and even biometric measurements like your heart rate and fitness level (if you have a wearable with Android OS)
Check Your Collected Data
Like we hinted at before, Google is not shy about what it knows. You can actually view your own data if you know where to look. In fact, you can even download the entire record of data Google keeps on you.
Short of cutting all Google products out of your life, it’s nearly impossible to stop Google completely from storing your data. There are, however, several ways you can limit what Google collects. Here are our top recommendations:
Opt out of Google Analytics
Google Analytics is another service Google offers that analyzes web activity. Advertisers use this tool to track the performance of their websites through metrics like the number of site visits and time on page. You can opt-out of GA tracking at any time so your search history is a little more private.
Set search history to auto-delete
Manually clearing your search history gets old pretty fast. To cut time and gain back a little privacy, try setting your search history to auto-delete so your browsing data is cleared at a cadence of your choosing, be it daily, weekly, or monthly.
Turn off activity tracking
If you don’t want Google knowing about your every move or YouTube binge, consider turning off your activity tracking. Google provides a dashboard where you can customize which data is collected for things like Web & App Activity, Location History, and YouTube History.
Always use a VPN while online
By far the safest way to search the web is by using a reputable VPN. A VPN adds an extra layer of privacy online by hiding your IP address and thus your physical location. It prevents snoopers like Google and your ISP from tying your online activity back to you. For those set on using Google for browsing, here are a few VPNs for Chrome worth checking out. These will even work right in the Chrome browser as a Google extensions VPN.
Under the guise of improving your user experience, Google has a shocking amount of data on you. From your home address to what kind of food you get for takeout, Google’s databases are filled with information that helps it send relevant ads your way. After all, nothing is ever truly free.
So, what do you think? Are you okay with Google knowing all it does about you? Or, are you getting the heebie-jeebies like we did? Depending on how you feel, you may want to consider taking steps to regain some privacy online.
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